Why Byzantium is one of the most underrated vampire movies

[TW: This article discusses the general topic of sexual assault and how it is portrayed in Byzantium.]


The 2010s gave us many sacred pop culture moments and movements; most notably a worldwide madness for vampires and mindless night creatures like the iconic Twilight series. And during this decade of wild music, funny celebrity moments and the emergence of subcultural fandoms for what felt like any kind of content, playwright and author, Moria Buffini, managed to create a masterpiece with the film from 2012, Byzantium. Based on her 2008 play, A vampire story, Byzantium is chronicled by Eleanor Webb (Saoirse Ronan) as she writes and constantly revisits her world from the 18th century while living in the present.

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Eleanor talks about her young mother, Clara Webbs (Gemma Arterton), shocking tale of slavery and prostitution in the hands of a Royal Navy officer, Captain Ruthven (Jonny Lee Miller), accompanied by his naval friend, Captain Darvell (Sam Riley), who rejects his “friend’s” immoral and abominable behavior. Eventually, raped and forced into sex work at a young age, Clara endured a harmful life of heinous abuse, with Eleanor as a result of an assault. In her anguish, she gave her daughter away to an orphanage. Over the years, she painfully withered away due to tuberculosis and a risky life as a sex worker, Clara was finally offered a kind of gift, a rebirth.

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After an unexpected visit from a presumed dead Darvell, who seeks out Ruthven to recover the belongings stolen from him, Clara follows in his dark footsteps as he explains his remarkably preserved youth after so many years. A map leading to an island of stone where one must sacrifice and be fearless catches Clara’s ears, and as Darvell leaves, Clara Ruthven shoots, steals his ‘gift’ and flees to the island. Here she dies and wakes up like a vampire, healthy and with new eyes for the world. Unbeknownst to her, the gift she took was intended for men only, which Darvell explains as he is part of an old scientific fraternity, The Pointed Nails of Justice.


Byzantine-Gemma-Arterton
Image via IFC Films

All the while, a vengeful Captain Ruthven seeks out a now teenage Eleanor as a way to get back to Clara. He rapes his own daughter and leaves her barely alive. Clara arrives at the scene late and murders her longtime oppressor. Desperate, the fraternity’s codes are condemned, taking Clara Eleanor to the island and making her daughter turn into a vampire to save her. The women retreated to the lifestyle of strangers on the road, wandering at night and running from the fraternity for over two centuries. And this is where Eleanor’s story unfolds really begins.


Coupled with the stereotypical depictions of classic and contemporary vampires, Clara and Eleanor as a clashing mother-daughter duo illustrate women’s potential to be dynamic characters outside of love and relationships. Most vampire stories center around a male vampire sending his female lover into condemnation with him. Often these archetypes highlight women through a misogynistic gaze, as objects used for male pleasure or as obedient servants of their new dark lord. What Moria Buffini does is take the poetics of Gothic-era vampire history and place women struggling with trauma and striving for freedom as opposed to ordinary love.

Buffini and instructor, Neil Jordan, so implies lesser known versions of the classic tale of Dracula with references to historical figures such as the 15th-century Count Vlad “The Impaler”, a notorious Turkish usurper who vigorously claimed regions throughout Wallachia and punished his enemies or violators his strengthening government of government. Therefore, his reputation for spitting sacrifices gave him his name. Another notable historical figure with clear similarities to Clara comes from the equally cool Elizabeth Bathory from the late 16th century, early 17th century. Bathory, today known as one of the most prolific female serial killers in history with up to 600 victims, was a noblewoman known for her obsession with blood, who horribly murdered young maids for their blood, which she believed helped maintain a youthful glow, tight skin and ultimate beauty. Clara internalizes an obsession with control and power, with these as her only motivation for stealing Captain Ruthven’s shot at eternal life.



Byzantium
Image via IFC Films

Bathory’s story takes place in her Hungarian castle Csejte, while Vlad’s story takes place in the Eastern European Carpathian region. IN Byzantium, is a similar fictional depiction of the vampire’s birthplace shown as The Healing Shrine, a massive black rocky island with little life and agriculture. This is where one has to make the greatest sacrifice: to face a cruel death in order to be reborn with the gifts of the occult. Clara and Eleanor both claim freedom and physical healing from the sanctuary, but the burden of immortality becomes apparent as Eleanor recites her misery and her mother’s trauma story. She gets air in her writing and by telling her victims before she kills them.

Buffini and Jordan make an unorthodox vampire story that elaborates on the concept of powerful choices. Clara sacrifices herself for her daughter, and even though she is an imperfect mother, she still keeps Eleanor’s safety from the fraternity above everything else. As the couple lives in a sleepy seaside resort in a former coastal town and jointly the home of Eleanor’s orphanage and sexual trauma, they are pursued by two members of the fraternity. Darvell and Savella (Uri Gavriel), which has relentlessly searched for them over the last two centuries. On a night of bustle, Clara meets a broken man, Noel, who offers his home, a dilapidated hotel called Byzantium.


Amidst the fact that her new home is the site of misery and anxiety, Eleanor increases her homicide rate and exploits the elderly population, while Clara restarts a prostitution business at the hotel. Eleanor walks down the path of memory, traumatic flashbacks and isolates her emotions even more as she meets her suitor, Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), a teenager dies of leukemia. Clara, jealous and hardened by her past, threatens Eleanor’s little bite of happiness. It is this attitude that defines their tattered relationship.


Byzantine-Saoirse-Ronan-1
Image via IFC Films

In a poetic way and similar moxie to writers like Edgar Allen Poe or Mary Wollstonecraft, Eleanor longs to reveal the heavy burden of her century; a weight that was never hers to carry. Clara passed on a cycle of despair and abuse the moment she revealed her life and circumstances to her child. Although she saves her daughter’s life, she gives her an impossible choice: face a slow and painful death with the trauma of her sexual assault and the mental strain of realizing it was done in her own father’s hand. or find privileges and freedom in immortality and become the child of the night.


By the end of the film, it is clear that Clara has realized how her life and story have held both her and her child hostage to an unforgettable story. The moment Clara decided to become a vampire, subdue death and restore power to the hands of the weak, she stepped into her sexual prowess, defied the gender norms of her Gothic community, and began to redefine her life, even though she was shaped by the fear of fraternity finds her and Eleanor. While Eleanor never really got the chance to step into her power, she seizes her opportunity as she falls for Frank. A piece of Clara lives on in Eleanor as she wants to heal her new lover and eventually decides to spend a lifetime with him.

Byzantium presents a striking account of injury and suffering unlike any other, but it emerges as the ultimate different vampire film that really grinds loren down to an ethereal masterpiece that shows Buffini’s lively gaze for true storytelling. Female vampires can be more than just henchmen or slaves of a dark lord. They can be emotional, cunning, friendly, inventive and complex at the same time. They can be just as insane and scary as their disgusting male counterparts. And Buffini and Jordan’s ingenious approach to the iconic Dracula is a refreshing tribute.



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